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Creating Solid Environmental Responses: Confidence in Canines

May 19, 2023
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Creating Solid Environmental Responses: Confidence in Canines

May 19, 2023

There are many things that are often overlooked when it comes to raising a puppy or training a dog through environmental stimuli. It is imperative that any dog, whether working or pet, has been exposed and conditioned to make generalized responses to any sort of stimuli it might encounter in the real world. Part of what makes a good trainer is the ability to anticipate potential problems and successively approximate a variety of environmental stimuli that could cause problems. Successive approximation is an incredibly valuable aspect of operant conditioning psychology that MUST be utilized to create a stress free progressive learning system. This term means to reinforce responses similar to what the desired end behavior is, creating a chain that helps the dog learn in steps, instead of expecting a perfect final response immediately and flooding them with stress in what could already be a stressful situation. 

There are an infinite amount of environmental obstacles that you can come up with in training. For working dogs, you will often find yourself working in/around buildings, stairs, confined spaces, and darkness. Not only are these structures stressors, but decoys, handlers and any distractions either of the two bring are considered environmental stressors for the dog. The most common in pet training can be cars, bikes, people, and one of the most prevalent that I love to use as an example in lessons is the doorbell. The sound of a doorbell or knock on the door spikes cortisol in dogs, which is why you typically see such an intense reaction, whether it be fear or excitement. It is important to always be mindful of the variables of environmental stressors, most importantly, the intensity and duration. A good trainer must be able to diagnose an environmental stressor on the spot and learn to work a dog's threshold and build up their working margin.

Working a dog through environmental obstacles requires you to be excellent at observing fear behavior; dogs will exhibit either fight, flight, or freeze, but you should be adept at recognizing pre-avoidance behaviors. In a training session, you must have a goal in mind while assuming that something bad can happen at any given time. Canine behavior does not need to necessarily make sense from a human perspective. When training pets, knowing what kind of exposure the dog has had to stressors is a very valuable insight into where it may lie in the working margin. It is the trainers responsibility to introduce environmental stressors gradually and limit to one variable change at a time. 

As a trainer, you must know what your animal's fear response is going to be in specific environments. All animals display neophobia, which is the fear of new or novel stimuli. In order to create a confident dog, you should understand the difference between habituation and sensitization. “Habituation is a decrease in a response that is produced by repeated presentations of the stimulus that initially evoked the response.” However, this does not mean you introduce the stimulus at maximum strength and intensity to create habitual responses. If done properly, you can train an animal to ignore an incredible amount of stress and stimuli that are aversive. The proper way to use habituation in training is to start with a weaker stimulus with a progressive and gradual increase, which leads to a rapid habituation response. There are different methods to approach habituation, two of which can be “massed” or “spaced” exposure. Massed exposure is fast and repetitive in short bursts. For example, if you have a pet that is anxious about doorbells, using massed exposure and bursting the sound in short intervals can help reduce a fear response initially, but doesn’t have long lasting effects. Whereas a spaced level of exposure is to have long intervals between stimuli; ringing a doorbell in set intervals of time to habituate the dog to it. You will not see an initial or sudden decrease in fear response, but over the course of time it will gradually decrease and have much longer lasting effects. 

Sensitization is the opposite of habituation, in which a repeated exposure to a fear inducing stimulus makes the response worse. This most likely happens when there is no escape or possible route of avoidance for the stimulus. Fireworks or thunderstorms tend to evoke this type of response in dogs as there is no way for them to escape the stimulus at all. There are two ways to go about this scenario, whether it be desensitization or counter conditioning. Desensitization is the decrease in sensitivity to a stimulus in a heightened state, achieved by introducing stressors at a very low strength and frequency and moving upward slowly. However, in a scenario involving fireworks or thunder (input variables you have no control over) counter-conditioning should be used. This technique is used to change generalized behavior in animals in response to a stimulus. An example of this in dog training would be working around moving cars. In order to do this, you would find the threshold where pre-avoidance behaviors show in the dog, and then put the stimulus right before that threshold. Having control of your variables is the most important aspect of training. In this scenario, you can train mutually exclusive behaviors or reinforce the absence of behaviors, but you can not expect a dog to learn by preventing him from doing the undesired behavior or not exposing him to the threshold. 

As confusing as behaviors and their correct training approach can be, there are a few fundamental truths when working with environmental stressors and creating a confident companion. A trainer should absolutely never reinforce and reassure a dog exhibiting a fear response. You should change or redirect the behavior to something mutually exclusive to a fear response and reinforce that, or you can reinforce the absence of the fear behavior itself. Another fundamental truth is to never punish dogs for their fear response, as you are only introducing more stress and creating a stronger conditioned fear response, which can in turn lead to learned helplessness.

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